Fiona Smith Columnist

Fiona writes on workplace issues, including management, psychology, workplace design, human resources and recruitment. She is a former Work Space editor at The Australian Financial Review and has also covered property, technology, architecture and general news.

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How to avoid the parent trap and ensure your valuable mums return to work

Published 20 February 2013 07:42, Updated 10 April 2013 07:32

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How to avoid the parent trap and ensure your valuable mums return to work

Some employers are paying big incentives to encourage women back to work to retain their skills. Photo: Fairfax Media

When a woman ventures back to work from maternity leave, people may give her slightly quizzical looks in the lift and as she makes her way to her desk.

Someone may ask if she has been on holiday. Chances are they’ve forgotten she has had a baby, that she grew to the size of half a house and that they sent flowers to the hospital.

Business life had gone on pretty much as normal while she was away, but her life has been turned upside down. She’s a different person now, with different motivations and needs – but no one can see it because she looks the same as she always did.

I remember a tough and seasoned journalist who lasted a day back in the office, before escaping in tears, never to return.

And I recall peering through the gaps in the childcare centre fence, unable to leave for work until I was sure my child had stopped wailing for me.

Fathers too are often in a state of shock. They may take a few days off work and, if they haven’t announced the news, they will return from a life-changing experience but nobody will be the wiser.

Yet, they too have the sleepless nights, the stresses of a collicky baby and overwhelmed partner – and they have no time to recover.

Research by Southern Cross University finds that fathers of newborns are 36 per cent more likely to have a near miss at work, and 26 per cent more likely to have a near miss on the road.

This makes me think the practice of pinning a baby photo to your workstation is not so much to remind you of the reason for your toil but more a signal to others to give you a break.

Highly qualified women who are locked out of the workforce – because of the entanglements of childcare – are a wasted resource.

UK research shows that one in three white women with an MBA are not working, compared with one in 20 men.

Some companies, concerned about the women who never return (and the men who become shells of their former selves) have made a great effort to help out. If they can ease the way back into work after the birth of a child, they retain the people and their valuable skills and experience, and they generate loyalty.

Some companies do a “cash splash”, offering significant financial incentives to those primary carers (almost always mums) who return.

Director of consultancy Transitioning Well, Justine Alter, says the clever ones do it over a number of years to get parents over the “honeymoon hump” period, which can happen six months to a year after they return and realise that it is all too hard.

“It often hits women when they are coming back after having the second baby and, sometimes, the impact of the transition hits you later,” she says.

Offering sums of $10,000 or more per year to get people back can certainly offset the costs of having children and could be a drawcard for those who are motivated by money . . . or the ones who really need it. However, money is not the reason most mums give up on work.

Employers who recognise this tackle the bigger issue of making it possible through offering flexible working conditions, assistance in finding childcare, on-site facilities for breastfeeding and return-to-work coaching.

Alter says maternity leave coaching is starting to get a toehold in Australia, although it has been available in the UK for about eight years. She says research from the UK shows coaching helps women return to work from maternity leave, with a reported increase in retention from 50 per cent to 74 per cent.

Generally, with the coaching, sessions are provided to parents-to-be and then again after the return to work. Subjects covered may be about flexible working, how to find childcare, reassessing career goals and how to handle “mother guilt”.

Some examples of how companies are helping employees who are new parents include:

  • Deutsche Bank Australia: Offers $10,000 (gross) per year, per child until the child turns three. This also applies for adopted children where maternity leave is taken. There is also 14 weeks paid parental leave for the primary carer and coaching assistance through a maternity program before they leave and after they return.
  • Caltex: Offers a bonus of 12 per cent of base salary per year until the child turns two (inclusive of superannuation), which equates to $9000 gross for someone earning $75,000. Access to emergency childcare through Dial-An-Angel is available up to five times per year to the value of $299 per session until child is two. There is also 12 weeks of fully paid maternity leave, eight weeks’ paid leave for the non-birth parent, assistance for finding appropriate childcare and facilities for nursing mothers.
  • Insurance Australia Group: A return to work bonus of six weeks’ pay, as well as 14 weeks of paid maternity leave (on top of the government’s 18 weeks at the minimum wage). Three weeks paid secondary carers’ leave and an on-site carer’s room in major locations.
  • Ernst & Young: 14 weeks paid parental leave (for people who have been there less than five years) and 18 weeks for people who have been there longer. This is on top of the government’s paid parental leave provisions. There is also coaching, career development programs, financial advice or domestic assistance. Returning parents can have a parental leave mentor – an experienced parent who can offer advice.

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